The Invention of Failure

By Cathy Davidson|January 11, 2015|Reflection|0 comments

What if we got rid of “flunk out courses” that were defined as “rigorous and demanding” and, instead, set our goal as ensuring the success of every student in equally “rigorous and demanding” courses?   That is, what if we decided what we thought of as excellence in a given course and then not only agreed that we could give A’s to anyone who achieved that goal but worked, collectively, to find the right tools, methods, and partners so that each student in the class could theoretically achieve an A–or at least a “pass” for the course?   Do you see how setting the goal as success rather than failure changes everything about success and learning in the course?    I am not saying that every student would, in fact, pass.

But if the goal were to work with every student who was working hard to pass to find the best way for them to pass, then the whole constellation of ideas based on “rigorous means failing a lot of students” would fly out the window.   “Grade inflation” (in all its unfair and hypocritical ramifications) would not exist.  “Grade attainement” would.   Also, if one were not grading students on a curve, then actually, thoughtfully defining the terms of success would be something a teacher would do before the course began, transparently, and the energy of the class would be working to find ways to move everyone to that goal.

I am currently working on the third chapter of my new book on the history and future of higher education, “The Invention of Failure.”   I am fascinating by all I am learning about statistics, testing, IQ, multiple choice, grading, class and school ranking, and failure in the Industrial Age.

One of my arguments is that everything in education–kindergarten to lifelong learning–is essentially configured on an implicit curve with the high point of the curve implicitly defined by the Top 10 elite universities that serve approximately .03% of the current college population.   Accreditation, credentialing, and everything else uses that elite norm as the standard and everything is measured from that goal.  It makes elitism–making it through the very tiny eye of the academic needle–the true metric of higher education success.

I’ve not yet read Lani Guinier’s new book on testing but I will be interested to see how much her work and mine intersect.  I suspect there will be some real confluences.  In the meantime, I want to work this semester, in our “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education” course, to set up the goal, for our graduate students and for their undergraduates, of a rigorous, difficult, exactly course–and the other goal of finding the right methods, tools, and partners so that everyone succeeds in attaining a passing grade in that exacting, difficult course.

Success when the bar is set high gives you not just immediate satisfaction but a toolkit for success when you confront obstacles later–in school and out.

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